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Home » Adventures » Backpacking Europe » Italy

One Summer in Europe: Italy


Naples had a very different atmosphere from any other city I visited in Europe. Almost none of the city had a polished tourist feel, but instead was very narrow, gritty, dirty, and had graffiti laden streets. If one of the (very small) cars came through, pedestrians had to squeeze against the side of the alley to let it pass.

Mt. Vesuvius towering over Naples

Mt. Vesuvius

The first gem I found in town tucked away on an unremarkable street was the Museo Cappella Sansevero, which contained many extraordinary sculptures, including The Veiled Christ. This masterpiece was am amazing representation of the dead Christ covered in a veil, and had been carved from a single block of stone. The details of the body were visibly through the contours of the veil, including Jesus’ face and pierced hands. It was incredibly realistic, as if the veil really had been placed over the body. The museum also contained many other impressive sculptures, notably of a woman covered in a veil and a man ensnarled in a net. They were not created from a single block of stone, but the results were still stunning.

I took the shuttle up the windy road to the top of Mt. Vesuvius. A twenty minute stroll from the carpark led to the crater itself, a big, deep hole in the top of the mountain. Steam escaped from the cavity in several places. The site was calm, although this volcano has erupted violent many times in the past. The top was also cloud covered, so I could not see much of the surrounding country side.

The ruins of Pompeii


I then went to the ruins of Pompeii, which was famously buried by the volcano I just visited. Although the events that led to this city’s destruction were spectacular, I did not find the remaining ruins that impressive. The volcanic ash had to be removed to excavate the buildings, so no obvious evidence of the city’s fate was left. Pompeii was now a collection of old stone ruins, similar to many other ones I had seen. They were in relatively good condition though, with the ash preserving the buildings. The second story of all the buildings was gone though. The initial eruption buried up to the first story of the city in ash, but then a lahar came rushing down the mountainside, obliterating the still exposed second stories.

I had not opted for the audio guide and signage was few and far between, so I usually did not know precisely what I was looking at. I just wondered around the ruins making my best guesses and avoiding the many stray dogs.

A plaster mold of one of the people that died in the eruption

Several of the victims from the eruption had their bodies frozen in time. After buried by ash, their bodies decomposed, leaving a void with a precise record of how their final position. While the ruins were being excavated, there cavities were discovered and plaster molds were made of them. Looking back into a person dead 2,000 years was eerie. The molds had an amazing about of details, especially around the face. I assumed these were added, as I could not imagine such nuances being captured by ash, but I did not know for sure.


The Colosseum

I visited the Colosseum, and despite its reputation I had almost no wait to get inside. Its size, scale, stonework, and the fact that it was built 2,000 years ago were very impressive. The stone arches visible inside the stadium used to supported the bleachers. Another intricate system held up the arena floor and provided access from underneath. A roof made of fabric used to cover most of the open roof to keep the spectators out of the sun. Tens of thousands of animals were scarified or “hunted” within the confines, along with an untold amount of gladiatorial combat. Gladiators did not die as often as Hollywood implies, mostly because training them was expensive. Also, although Christians were persecuted by the Roman empire, it is unclear if that occurred inside the Colosseum.

Ruins inside the Roman Forum

Roman Forum

The Roman Forum ruins were the remains of the seat of power in ancient Rome. The emperor lived and ruled from here. In its confines were many temples and monuments to their gods. Most of the ruins were in bad condition, having succumbed to over a thousand years of neglect. Still, some impressive columns were intact, as well as portions of enormous buildings and gardens. Casually strolling around the ground of the most powerful person on Earth in his day made me feel both big and small at the same time.

The Pantheon was a massive, domed building with a ten meter hole in the center of the roof. There is no covering, so water falls through when it rains. It was originally built by the Romans as a temple to their gods, but was converted to a church 1,500 years ago. The building was very scenic.

I also climbed the Spanish Steps, which provided a nice place to relax, but really were not that impressive, despite their fame. Mostly it was just tourists, counterfeit purse sellers, and scammers trying to trick people in buying roses.

The Trevi Fountain at night

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain was as grand as its hype. A tremendous amount of water gushed forth from this fountain, and I could hear it before I saw it. The statues contained within were impressive and beautifully lit up at night. This famous fountain is curiously off a small alleyway. This location did not stop everyone from finding it though, and the plaza was packed. Fountains are all around Rome though, both spectacular ones like this and the more mundane. Their original purpose was to provide the city’s residents water, and many still serve this purpose, being a nice place to top of a water bottle with a cold drink.

Vatican City

St. Peter’s Square

St. Peter’s Square

Walking from the subway station to the Vatican was the worst I have ever been assaulted by countless seedy people hawking tours and other questionable offerings to tourists. They were much worse than anything I experienced in China, who at the time seemed relentless. Thankfully the line for the Vatican Museum was not quiet as bad as my guidebook advised, and inside I found a combination of a traditional museum with notable artifacts (especially Egyptian and Roman), as well as treasures created specifically for the Catholic church and the Pope. Some of the unique masterpieces included the Raphael Rooms, which had elaborate floor to ceiling paintings of Biblical scenes. Another long hall was lined with a large artistic map of Italy, showing the territory that was important to the Vatican at the time. Besides Bible stories, much of the artwork celebrated military victories by the Vatican-State or other significant events in the life of the church during the Middle Ages. The Sistine Chapel was of course impressive, but not jaw dropping for me. It was a large room, with priceless art covering all the walls and ceiling. The room did not feel like a chapel though, as there was almost no furniture or other decorations inside besides the paintings. A separate area of the museum housed a collection of vehicles used by Popes throughout the ages, including an ornate horse drawn carriages and a few old Popemobiles.

A former Popemobile


After admiring the architecture around St. Peter’s Square, I entered St. Peter’s Basilica. Although impressive, it did not feel any more ornate or special than the other grand churches I had seen across Europe. It was much larger though. Under the basilica was a crypt containing the bodies of many former Popes, and even supposedly St. Peter himself. I took the stairs to the top of the dome, with a grand view into the church interior. An ever narrower, curvier, and slantier set of steps eventually led outside to the top of the dome, with superb views of the Vatican and Rome, although many other people were enjoying it as well.


For most of my time in the City of Canals I never went looking for anything specific, but just wandered the maze of streets finding what I happened upon and absorbing the city. Plenty of canals snaked throughout the city, but there were even more narrow and twisting alleyways. They never went in a straight line for long, creating an almost unnavigable maze on the ground. The walkways constantly climbed up and down steps, deadened into people front doors, and intersected each other. Still, I took pleasure in getting lost around this city. A few notable churches and landmarks were within its small confines, but for the most part I just enjoyed the face of Venice.

The fabled canals serve the function of roads, transporting supplies, materials, and people around town. On the large waterways an amazing amount of boat traffic crisscrossed the water. Boats zipped in every direction, on all parts of the river, and sometimes very close together.

I also visited the nearby island of Lido where I relaxed on the beach. Laying on the warm sand counting the waves was a great way to decompress.

Pictures from Venice

Venice’s Grand Canal
A gondola moving tourists around the water
A random narrow canal in Venice
St. Mark’s Square